Chief of Staff vs. COO: What’s the Difference?

Written by Beth Jacobs

May 8, 2024

I have answered, no less than three times in the past two days, this question: 

“What is the difference between a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief of Staff?” 

It most often comes in conversation after you explain how a Chief of Staff is not an executive assistant, but a leader’s right-hand strategic thought partner, who often manages projects, creates strategic plans, and especially in start-ups or other small organizations, oversees many operational aspects of a business like finance, human resources, risk management, etc. 

The chief of staff role is still new enough in the corporate world that many people have questions about the difference between a chief of staff (CoS) and a chief operating officer (COO).

However, these two roles are very different, occupying different levels in a company’s leadership structure, having distinct responsibilities, and operating with different priorities. And, perhaps even more importantly, the cost to hire each one is significantly different. 

Let’s break down the difference between these roles and dig into when you should hire each one. 

CoS vs. COO At a Glance

The simplest way to think about the difference between these two roles is that a CoS is responsible for maximizing the effectiveness of one leader, while a COO is responsible for maximizing the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. 

The COO oversees the day-to-day operations of the company. They’re responsible for developing efficient processes, systems, and workflows across the organization. They manage costs, maximize revenue, and drive profitability for the organization. 

As a leader’s right-hand strategic thought partner, a CoS spends their time facilitating things like strategic planning processes, including leading the individual meetings, asking insightful questions, and managing the follow-up action items. When a CEO needs to make a big decision, the CoS provides support in the decision-making process, conducting research and presenting viable options to guide the leader to make the best decision.

While these roles are very complementary, they end up looking very different on the day-to-day, with the CoS role supporting the chief executive officer (CEO) directly in ways a COO would not. This includes things like outlining the CEO’s personal priorities and ensuring their time is aligned to those, drafting communications for the CEO, and supporting his or her relationship with direct reports and key stakeholders. While other areas of their work overlap, you won’t typically see a COO working with a CEO in these ways.

Infographic illustrating key differences between the chief operating officer and chief of staff roles in how they relate to the organization as a whole and the leader they support.

We’ve written more about the responsibilities and typical job description of a chief of staff, as well as the responsibilities of a chief operating officer elsewhere on our blog, but there are a few things worth emphasizing here. 

First, a COO has a responsibility to make a positive impact on the profits and loss of the business. If the business’s profitability takes a tumble, the COO is the one who would be held accountable, not the CoS.

Second, because the two roles have different top priorities, it wouldn’t make sense to hire one person to fill both roles. In certain scenarios, decisions aimed at maximizing a CEO’s effectiveness may conflict with decisions aimed to maximize the effectiveness of the organization. For example, one of the roles a CoS often plays is that of gatekeeper to the CEO, protecting their time by controlling whose problems get escalated to the CEO’s attention. A COO might ask for a meeting with the CEO at a time when the CEO is dealing with other urgent matters. If the CoS and COO are one and the same, it’s unlikely for the COO to be able to objectively decide when their problems are worth the CEO’s time and when they should take a backseat to other issues. That’s just one example of why the CoS and COO roles should not be held by one person. 

However, a growing company may not need full-time support in both of these roles. This is where fractional executives can be game changers for growing companies and startups. If a company anticipates only needing 50 percent of a COO’s time and 50 percent of a CoS’s time, they can hire fractional executives to fill the roles at a much more cost-effective price point than hiring full-time executives. 

Cost Difference Between CoS and COO 

In 2024, the average salary for a full-time chief of staff sits at $120,000. For a COO, salaries begin around $200,000 and can be much higher, depending on the size of the organization. 

If you can’t justify the cost of a full-time executive in one or both of these positions, hiring a fractional executive might be a good solution. The average hourly rate for a fractional CoS is $150 to $190 an hour, while a fractional COO typically charges $200 to $350 an hour. To be effective in these roles, the fractional executive would need to work a minimum of 20 hours a month. 

Where Do the CoS and COO Fit in the Leadership Structure? 

While the CoS and COO are both members of the executive leadership team and both report directly to the CEO, the COO is a more senior-level position. 

The chief of staff may not have any direct reports, operating as a team of one, or they may manage one or more executive assistants or other members of the office of the CEO. They may also frequently liaise with other members of the c-suite or board members, but they don’t have direct reporting lines or authority over them (which is why influencing without managing is a key skill for a CoS). 

The COO, on the other hand, often manages all of the department heads, such as sales manager, marketing manager, operations manager, and product manager.

This infographic shows the chief of staff's position in an organizational chart. The chief of staff reports to the CEO and manages the office of the CEO, and is on the same level in the hierarchy as other C-level positions like COO and CFO.

CoS vs COO: Which One Should You Hire First

Leaders who are finding themselves maxed out on capacity often ask us, “Which kind of fractional executive should I hire first?”

The decision of whether to hire a CoS or a COO first hinges on which kind of responsibilities and tasks you most need someone to take off your plate. The best way to determine that is to take an inventory of your strengths as a leader (or the combined strengths of the co-founders if there’s more than one leader). 

For example, a leader with strong operations skills might be best complemented by a CoS who excels at handling personnel issues, communicating on the leader’s behalf, and facilitating strategic planning meetings. When a leader or a founder doesn’t have experience in the industry they’re in, they might want to bring in a COO with industry experience to operationalize their vision first.

If you’re not sure what your strengths are, or where you should be spending your time, here are some questions to ask: 

  • What is your zone of genius
  • What are your strongest leadership skills
  • What growth opportunities are you unable to capitalize on because you’re so overwhelmed/busy as the CEO? 
  • What are the strategic projects you wish you were working on, and what’s the reason why you don’t work on them? Is it because you don’t have the skill set, experience, or ability to do them? Or is it because you’re so bogged down in the day-to-day running of the organization that you don’t have the capacity

Many entrepreneurs won’t give themselves permission to work on the strategic initiatives they’re the most excited about because they feel obligated to stay engaged in the day-to-day business operations. But stepping back from the day-to-day is a necessary step if you want to grow the company. Plus, if you ever want to sell the company, you need to prove that it can operate without you having a hand in every single department. 

What Projects Are Best For a CoS, And Which Are Better For A COO

Sometimes it’s easiest to grasp the difference between two positions when you think about the types of projects they would lead. 

Process Optimization

We’ve had a few conversations with growing businesses recently who said they needed help optimizing their operations and processes, and weren’t sure if a CoS or a COO was the best fit. 

In this situation, it depends on what kind of processes and operations they need to optimize. If the leader is describing their personal processes, such as booking meetings, preparing for presentations, hiring and onboarding EAs, or other administrative tasks, then that’s a good fit for a CoS. 

If it’s a larger scale process optimization effort, where multiple departments have to coordinate with each other to produce deliverables that impact the company’s core operations — think about the design, production, and application of packaging for a consumer good, as an example — that kind of project is more appropriate for a COO

Special Projects

Most one-time special projects fall within the scope of the chief of staff role, primarily because it’s not worth the added cost of a COO when a generalist with high attention to detail can handle the job.

A few examples of special projects that are a great fit for a CoS include: 

  • Setting up a project management tool
  • Moving offices
  • Addressing cultural issues 

Also, it’s good to remember that a CoS and COO aren’t the only kinds of roles that can take things off your plate if you’re a CEO. 

At vChief, we also have a talent pool of associate chief of staff candidates. An associate chief of staff is a lower cost option than a CoS that is suitable for projects requiring a higher level of execution than an executive assistant could provide, but not as much strategic direction as a chief of staff would offer.

And if you’re a chief of staff candidate interested in the difference between a chief of staff job and a COO job, you might also be interested in our guide to the typical career path for a Chief of Staff

Solve Your Capacity Issues with a Fractional CoS or COO

vChief is a fractional and interim executive staffing company specializing in filling a variety of senior leadership roles, including chief of staff, chief operating officer, and HRBP. Our clients include startups, nonprofits, foundations, educational organizations, and corporate enterprises. 

If you’re ready to explore how fractional executives can be a gamechanger to your growth and are unsure whether you need the support of a fractional CoS or a fractional COO, our talented team will help you out during our free needs assessment. We’ll take the time to get to know you as a leader, understand your organization’s culture, and your goals, and diagnose the biggest obstacles holding you back.

Within three days, we’ll match you with two to five candidates from our diverse talent pool of nearly 500 highly qualified executives whose skill sets and industry expertise meet your needs. You’ll have the opportunity to interview your top two or three candidates with no obligation to sign a contract. If you find a good match, your candidate can start in as little as two weeks. Our fractional executives are skilled at making an impact from day one. 

Schedule your free needs assessment today.

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